Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me. I remember sitting in church, between my mom and dad, singing, hymnal firmly clutched in my hand. I was amazed when I realized that as we read, we went from each first line, to the chorus. Then we sang each first line of the second section, back to the chorus, then the same thing for the third section, and so on. It was an “ah ha” moment, one in which the light bulb went off in my head. I had discovered another tidbit about the joy of reading. Running my finger across the printed words, the sounds, the story, all lead to clarity, reflection and an exciting desire to read and learn more. Reading aloud to children is powerful. Of all the experiences said to contribute to early literacy, shared book reading between families and children is the most valuable.
“Storybook reading begins in the earliest days of infancy when parents are holding or feeding a child and continues throughout childhood as it is woven into the fabric of family life,” writes the late Bernice Cullinan of New York University. “As young mothers, Denny Taylor and Dorothy Strickland knew instinctively that stories would nourish their children’s minds as milk and vegetables nourished their bodies. Now, with both personal and professional credentials, they observe family storybook reading closely to focus on the literacy lessons underway.” I was a recipient of those milk and vegetable experiences. Dorothy Strickland was my mother, God rest her soul. Cullinan goes on to describe my mom and Taylor as astute observers, the type who see the connections between complex learning events and the natural occasions in which they occur.
When adults read an appropriate text to their children in the early years, such exposure is a boon to children’s language development and reading comprehension. Stories can help children process and understand their daily experiences, explore new topics or express their responses to or emotions about situations. Read-alouds help young children become familiar with the direction of print; the sequence of letters; the role of the author and illustrator; and descriptions of characters, settings, and major events.
Through books, children unlock the mysteries of reading, rivet their attention to print and engage in models of writing that build on and extend young concepts of texts and how they work. Books expose children to words beyond those they hear in their everyday lives, building vocabulary and allowing children to experience people and places in situations they may never come across otherwise. Books build background knowledge. Repeated readings of books help children recognize words and connect speech to print. Read-alouds can support children’s developing the ability to reason for themselves and with others if children are actively involved in discussions about the book being read.
As children experience storybooks from adults who use expression and show enjoyment, it provides an important occasion. They learn language, play with ideas, and build trust and understanding. Through reading aloud, modeling and discussion, children learn that print has meaning, that print is read left to right, and that picture cues can help tell the story. They also learn important skills such as prediction, and that one can use drawing and writing to respond to the story. Using verbal prompts can help guide children through the process and show them how to express their ideas. Pose open-ended questions. This gives children an opportunity to work on critical thinking, extending their comprehension more globally.
Keep a variety of books that offer diverse representation of groups and identities. There are variations within cultural groups and one book cannot authentically and accurately represent all the dynamics of a culture. Work toward a balance between books that reflect your children’s culture, language, background, identities and abilities, and books that expose them to different ways of living, being and doing.
From commonplace events to extraordinary happenings, sharing storybooks gives parents and children an opportunity to explore, experiment, discuss, and engage. Include your whole family and extended family in storytelling and creation. Stories can help build the home-school connection, make concepts relevant to students, and demonstrate the collaborative nature of the early learning community. Read books from your school and public library at home and reflect together on the books’ topics in a family reading journal.
If reflective thinking is an intellectual process, family storybook reading creates opportunities in our homes to shape this process. I’ve seen working parents with a new baby, bilingual families and single-parent families with several children all benefit greatly by making family storybook reading a vital habit in their everyday life.